Thursday, September 12, 2013

Wood Aging Experiment: Cherry, Hard Maple, Red Oak, White Ash - Recipe & Brew Day

wood aging experiment

The online homebrewing community is a wonderful thing for inspiration and information. Without fellow bloggers Jeffrey Crane and Chris Lewis, I might never have heard of the "Honey Comb Barrel Alternatives" offered by Black Swan Cooperage (website), a family-run cooperage in northern Minnesota (oh my god I am so happy that's still A Thing). Besides offering a variety of actual barrels in different sizes, Black Swan also sells eight types of wood "honeycombs". Designed specifically for homebrewers, these honeycombs are an intriguing alternative to the ol' chips, cubes and spirals. I guess the idea is that the honeycomb allows more surface area for contact, improving flavor extraction time (though I have no way to measure or confirm that). 

Last year, Jeff wrote about a very similar experiment in his blog, Bikes, Beers, and Adventures. (Chris Lewis of Lewy Brewing has also used the honeycombs, though in a variety of different brews). Sadly, it looks like Jeff's conclusions were abandoned due to an infection taking over the batch. On the plus side, he is a true gentleman, and was kind enough to send me some of the remaining cuts of his honeycombs during a yeast trade. What a guy. 

Though I am only brewing with four of them at the moment, Black Swan currently offers eight different wood types. Here are their tasting notes, per the website: 

Cherry - Butter brickle, ripe cherry, fresh grass, meringue, light fried bread/Belgian waffle
Hard Maple - Maple candy, light spice-nutmeg, cinnamon, syrup, bread/bakery, cream hint of cocoa
Hickory - Honey, BBQ, hickory smoked bacon, apple sauce, cocoa coconut
Red Oak - Red berries, toasted marshmallow, light grass, baking bread, butterscotch
Soft Maple - Yellow cake, light smoke, banana, nut, toasted bread, hint of orange spice
White Ash - Campfire, marshmallow, light grass, rising bread dough, light sweetness (adds different mouth-feel dimension)
White Oak - Vanilla, toasted coconut, cinnamon, pepper, sweet baked bread, caramel
Yellow Birch - Toffee, butterscotch, honey croissant, light lemon, tropical fruit

So, yeah, I was pretty flush with excitement upon discovering all this delicious-sounding wood to play with. (Phrasing?) Brewers have typically stuck to the classic oak in their brews, and while it's possible to achieve quite a bit of variety from just oak by varying the toast and place of origin, we homebrewers are not known to stick with the first, most-obvious option presented to us. Barrel-aging is all the rage these days, and it's hard enough to find beers aged in anything other than old bourbon barrels. And don't get me wrong, I love the hell out of bourbon-aged beers, but variety is a huge reason craft beer is so great. How many breweries are aging beer on anything other than oak? Jester King, Cigar City, probably a few others that I can't think of.

Since I don't have the capacity to test out all of these at once, I picked four of the most intriguing-sounding to start with: Cherry, Hard Maple, Red Oak, and White Ash. This part wasn't hard, as I'll try out the rest eventually, and get longer honeycombs for the varieties I like enough to use regularly in recipes. Black Swan recommends using 1-inch of honeycomb per gallon of beer, which is perfect, as I planned to run the experiment by fermenting the base beer as a whole in one large carboy, and then splitting it amongst gallon jugs for aging. 

The hardest part of this experiment was deciding what kind of base beers to toss the honeycombs into. Even though a light beer would have allowed for each variety to really shine through, how many times do you wood age a light, non-funky/sour beer? Sours and dark beers are almost always the intended target, though it would be awesome to run this experiment again sometime on something like a saison, or a pale 100% Brett session ale. But for now, I went with a vague dark-mild recipe; I'm not the best with "brewing to style," so I don't really know what to call it. It should be dark enough to capture the hearty character of the winter beers I'll typically be aging on wood, but not so dark as to wash out all of the wood nuances.

4.25 Gal., All Grain
Brewed: 8.26.2013
Bottled On:
Brewhouse Efficiency: 76%
Mashed at 152 F for 65 minutes
Fermented at 66 degrees F
OG: 1.057 / 13.9 Brix

69% 2-row malt
23% Munich malt
5.7% brown malt
2.3% Chocolate malt

Hop Schedule-
0.5 oz / 39 IBU Warrior @FWH
0.5 oz / 21 IBU Warrior @20 min

Other Additions-
1-inch wood honeycombs  / per gallon

Mangrove Jack Burton Union - 800 ml starter
The Alchemist Heady Topper - 600 ml starter


  1. Sounds awesome, very interested in the results and if the subtle nuances come through as described.

    1. Me too, hopefully I have the palate to taste them! I've had cedar wood-aged beers before, and that was extremely potent. But I have a feeling most of these will be a lot more timid than that.

  2. This is an interesting product! The only thing I don't like (but this is for most wood chips, spirals etc) is the surface area, and thus the contact area of the wood changes depending on the cut you receive. So it is slightly difficult or involves a lot more math to confirm how much wood you are getting in your beer - for repeatability factors. I like the different options though! What are your thoughts on contact time?

    1. Good point. I think (or am hoping) that the differences in surface area are too small to make much difference. Or, well, maybe they will at my tiny 1-gallon batch size, but I'm guessing that with a full 5 gallon batch, the variation would be even more negligible.

      Black Swan recommends 6 weeks contact time. I'll probably let the beer go around a month on the wood before I start tasting. Hopefully, despite variations, they should all be ready to bottle around the same time.

    2. Ya, it looks like the only variable on surface area is where the 1-inch cross sections cut the circles. So it shouldn't be too much of a difference. If you are an AHA member I recommend checking out John Gasparine's seminar from NHC this year - Alternative Wood Aging Techniques. The only time I had used wood in a beer I left it on the beer for 2 weeks, and got a lot of "harsh" wood flavor/tannins. John's research shows that it takes a minimum of 3 weeks for the tannins to drop out and the real flavors start to develop. So 6 weeks is a good target. Looking forward to the results.

    3. Very interesting. I've never had perfectly ideal results from wood-aging a beer myself, so info like that is always great to find. Thanks for the tip, I'll definitely check out that seminar.

  3. Gentleman, huh? I've been called worse.

    I'm just glad someone has the time to do this experiment. I really like the idea and think it has major potential.

    I also debated what style to use. The darker malt flavors would pair nicely with the wood flavors, but it is hard to tell how much flavor each one will produce. I'll probably do a light base for my next attempt, just so the flavors are obvious.

    With my experiment, I was still able to pull out some flavors. Especially with the birch, it has some crazy intensity. I actually really enjoyed it even though it tasted a little like furniture smells. The interesting part was that others that tried it had a hard time describing the flavor.

    1. Birch does seem like it'd be potent, for some reason. I'll ahve to get to that one in the next round. Good point about the variations in potency though — I'll have to be careful with that.

      Yeah, I hope I don't regret the dark base beer choice, but we'll see. I plan to do a lot of beers more-or-less along these lines, so it made sense to go that route, even if not the most practical. I'm also hoping I'm able to describe these flavors... the descriptions are so specific, I imagine my palate won't be quite able to pull out every one of those little nuances! Just like a new hop variety coming out though, I suppose.

    2. And thanks again for sending these over, really appreciate it. A gentleman and a scholar.

    3. I guess that is the whole reason to do the experiment. I'll bet that their descriptions come from using them with neutral grain alcohol. I bet that allows less flavors to be hidden and also the higher alcohol extracts more flavor and possibly different flavors.

      And now the light bulb goes off - maybe I should just do that. Then I can dose a variety of beer styles and see what works.

    4. Ohhh, good call man, that's brilliant. Sort of like dry hopping Bud Lite to pick out new hop nuances.

      Actually... that may not be a bad idea either. Maybe after this round is done with, I'll take all the honeycombs, split off a very small piece, and stuff them into a bottle of cheap neutral beer. Recap, wait a while, and hope no infection results. Don't see why that wouldn't work... hmmm

  4. Can't wait to hear how this turns out!

  5. Thanks for the kind words about my blog. I am also really interested to hear about the results.

    I have everything BlackSwan carries at home waiting to do something with a little more structured. Reading this puts a fire under my ass to start on it. The base recipe seems the hardest for sure. I was thinking Blonde, but I dont want to drink wood aged blondes for 6 weeks. I might have to settle on something with a little more punch.

    1. It would be very cool to hear about the results, especially in a different base style of beer. Wood-aged blonde ale does seem a bit "hmmm", for drinkability, but then again, it's sort of what Innis and Gunn is doing, pale, but thicker and breadier than a blonde. That stuff is basically the beer equivalent of cream soda, but weirdly enough I enjoy it. So you could go with something along those lines.

  6. Did you ever post the results, I can't seem to find them? Excited to hear about how the batches turned out.

    1. Hey Andrew! I did, results were posted here:

      Unfortunately, this was not my favorite batch, so somewhat inconclusive.


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